Woman's Role in Social Change

P>Education and the Kikuyu of Kenya

The contribution of women to a society's smooth transition from preliterate to literate, from a relatively autonomous community to a member of a nation enmeshed in a world economy, has received too little attention from social scientists and policy makers. When the economy and political organization of a society change, families who can adjust to the new conditions will fare the best. Inasmuch as women the world over are the primary caretakers of young children, they play an important role in facilitating or hindering changes in family life.

The introduction of a cash economy and occupations that require reading and writing require schools equipped to teach these skills. Throughout the Third World, schools are being introduced. Within the next decade it will become difficult, if not impossible, to find a society where the development of schooled and unschooled children can be compared.

How difficult is it for families to adjust to these new institutions? There are two major consequences that affect women - the loss of child labor and the need to make changes to help children master new skills. Working in a village in Kenya that is undergoing rapid social change, I have been able to observe the consequences of the introduction of schools and some of the adjustments women have made.

Coping with change is not new to the Bantu women of sub-Saharan Africa. Historians estimate that their forebears set out from the Niger River delta around the beginning of the Christian era and over a period of 2,000 years colonized south and east Africa, reaching Mt. Kenya around 1500 A.D. It was the policy of these colonists to arrange marriages of their women to the local inhabitants of the land they coveted. The women socialized their small children, teaching them the Bantu language and traditions, including agricultural practices. At the same time, however, as wives, the Bantu adjusted to the customs of their husbands.

In Kenyan Bantu communities, women traditionally have had the major responsibility for agricultural work, being responsible for raising the food for their children. Traditionally men cleared the land and built fences to protect it, but until the introduction of cash crops, left most of the preparation of the soil - planting, weeding, and harvesting - to the women and children. Men were responsible for the supervision and care of all livestock.

In the years following British colonization the workload of Kikuyu women increased until it was one of the heaviest of all women in the Third World. With the introduction of taxation by the British colonists, it became essential for men to earn wages. "Pax Brittanica" and land demarcation put an end to the acquisition of new land. With no effective contraception and large families, with growing dependence on products of the industrial world, the need for cash continued to increase. As men found jobs in the towns and cities, women were left to take care of all farm work, including the tending of the livestock and cash crops.

When we began our study in 1968, most of the mothers in Ngeca thought that education was necessary for success in the new nation. There had been a school in this Kenyan village I studied since 1928 but it was not until the 1940s that an appreciable number of children were enrolled. By the 1970s 85 percent of the seven-year-olds, 59 percent of the six-year-olds and 44 percent of the five-year-olds were either in nursery or primary school. Education was not free and not all families could afford to send all their five- and six-year-olds to primary school but they could afford nursery school. In 1974 the government instituted a policy of free education. Although families still were asked to contribute to the cost of building schools and buying books and supplies for their children, most six-year-olds were enrolled either in the nursery school or in the primary school.

Before the families decided that education was essential, mothers who were not able to hire help kept some children at home to care for infants and toddlers during the hours that they worked in the fields and performed chores outside the homestead. As in other societies in the Third World, children six through 10 were most frequently in charge of younger siblings. Older children could be called upon to do agricultural work and relieve the women of some of their heavy workload. However, once free education was introduced, and once it became obvious to the families that subsistence agriculture and cash cropping on small holdings was no longer viable, that literacy and school diplomas or even university degrees were essential for success in the modern world, most fathers and mothers decided that all children should attend school.

When the six-year-olds were no longer available during school hours, four- and five-year-old children were pressed into service as child nurses. These children are less capable of playing a consistent caretaking role. To add to the problems of the mothers, as the classrooms became crowded and the administration sought techniques for choosing between the applicants, they began to favor children who had attended nursery schools. Mothers, eager that their children should have the best opportunities, responded by enrolling their five-year-olds. Now during the school hours they had only four-year-olds at home to supervise younger siblings while they hurried to take animals to the pasture, carry water from the town well, or get wood for the cooking fire. If they went to the garden during school hours, infants and toddlers accompanied them and the four-year-old carried the infant strapped on its back while the mother worked.

Schooling not only requires a major change in the family's daily routines and the division of labor, it also leads to major changes in the socialization of children. The teaching of signs and symbols requires radically different techniques of instruction. Skills essential in subsistence agriculture are learned primarily by imitation. Rewards are not necessary. The child nurse whose infant charge does not cry has learned by experience what is required for competent caretaking. There is intrinsic reinforcement in keeping the infant contented. It is unpleasant to care for an unhappy baby. Similarly a young child can tell when it has mastered the art of keeping a cooking fire going, shelling peas, or digging potatoes. Occasionally the child may ask for help or information but for young children direct instruction is rare. Parents in this village, and in many Third World countries, do not approve of praising children. They believe that praise makes a child proud. Pride leads to sibling rivalry - competition between siblings and half siblings or cousins for the approval of adults. A proud child may be disrespectful of elders.

Learning to read and write symbols, however, requires feedback from the teacher. A child does not know that it has read a word correctly unless someone comments on the performance. Assuming that parents accept the value of education, how long does it take them to recognize that a different type of instruction is required? Some mothers spontaneously begin to praise their children. Sitting in a homestead one noon I observed a small boy return from school with his state. His illiterate mother asked to see the state. She looked at the markings and asked her son what they were. He told her the names of the letters. The mother studied the letters with interest and commented with obvious admiration, "That is very good." This mother was not consciously changing her teaching style: her praise was genuine appreciation of her son's new knowledge. In general, however, mothers with four or more years of schooling were more apt to praise their children than mothers with no education or only a few years of classroom instruction. The mothers who had spent more time in school seemed to model their behavior on that of their own teachers.

When asked what characteristics they desired for their children, mothers agreed that they valued generosity, good-heartedness, responsibility, obedience, and respect for one's elders. When asked what characteristics they thought made a child good at school, mothers agreed that cleverness, curiosity, boldness and obedience were important traits. Boldness gave the child courage to speak up in class. Obedience in the classroom was described as "keeping one's ears open." Mothers commented that cleverness often made a child proud and disrespectful of its elders. Similarly, a bold child might talk back to its parents. On the other hand, some parents believed that it was necessary for children to have these characteristics in the "new" world.

The mothers who valued education nut only praised their children more often than more traditional mothers, they also allowed their children to ask more questions, even to interrupt- the conversation of adults. They assigned them fewer chores, allowing them to plead the necessity of doing homework for school. Homes of these women were more child-oriented, most notably the households of professional parents in Nairobi. It was often impossible to have a coherent conversation with the mothers if the children were in the house, a far cry from the traditional household where children were expected to be silent in the presence of visitors, to speak only when spoken to.

The educated mothers who spend more time with their children than the fathers are carrying the major responsibility for encouraging the children to study. The women are aware that their comfort in old age depends in large part on the generosity of their children. If their children are equipped to get white collar jobs they will be better able later to care for their parents. It seems that mothers are more aware of the need to change their socialization techniques than the fathers.

What can we predict about the consequences of schooling on the development of children? In six different Third World communities, we found that school children were more egocentric. Once enrolled in school, girls spent less time caring for infants and toddlers and were less nurturant in their interaction with other children and with their mothers. All school children had more contact and more practice in establishing and maintaining relations with unrelated children of the same age. For children who attended secondary school there was opportunity to make friends with age mates from different parts of Kenya, friendships that cross-cut linguistic groups. In these settings they learned the possibilities for mobility and came into contact with individuals who had become successful in the "new" society. These contacts involved them in new lifestyles that made it difficult for them to continue frequent visit to their parents. The new expensive lifestyle made it more burdensome to share salaries and wages with relatives.

How did village mothers appraise the results of schooling? What are the realistic opportunities today in Kenya for young men and women who have earned high school and university diplomas? In the early 1960s high school graduates from the community we studied were able to get work. However, by the 1970s even college graduates were unsure of their futures. In 1975 the village children we had observed were in their teens. None had made the university. A few were enrolled in technical schools. Most had returned to the village with no promise of employment in the white collar jobs that they and their parents believed were assured to those who earned a diploma. Both young and old were perplexed by the false promises that they felt had been made to them. They did not know who was responsible for their failure.

The college graduates who were successful and held responsible jobs found it difficult to continue to share with their families and relatives and maintain an urban, middle class lifestyle. Not only schooling but success encouraged egocentric behavior. It was essential that one withhold money to maintain one's new status. Even in the village, the mobile families chose to move off the patrilineal homestead in order to save money. The women in these families have lost the support and help of their husband's family and of their sisters-in-law. Perhaps the young adult women will again have to reappraise the realities of the new nation and further modify their goals for their children.

It is not clear whether these Kikuyu mothers were unusual in their insight into the need for new socialization practices when schooling became important. Our interviews indicate that they are unusually pragmatic in their approach to child training. They do have confidence that they can teach their children certain skills.

Undoubtedly all mothers, partly out of concern for their own welfare in old age, hope that their children will be successful in the world society that is developing. They will try to help their children achieve success. Since they are the socializers of young children their beliefs about their efficacy and the techniques of socialization they adopt are important determinants of the course of social change.

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